Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Mouth of Truth - Audrey Hepburn - Princess Ann

Roman Holiday
1953, directed by William Wyler

Roman Holiday opens with a newsreel of Princess Ann’s tour of Europe, somewhat like the “Time on the March” newsflash that introduces Citizen Kane. Also like Citizen Kane, the early scenes of Roman Holiday drop a mysteriously unanswered question that opens a logical hole in the script. Just as Orson Welles’ movie never tells us how anyone heard Kane say “Rosebud” if he died alone, William Wyler’s movie never tells us exactly where the newsreel is supposed to end. It segues seamlessly into the plot, although we can guess that some sort of transition has begun when the old count corrects Princess Ann, keeping her from sitting down too soon, and certainly by the time the princess loses her shoe.

The transition from newsreel to story is probably invisible on purpose – the movie counts on us forgetting the newsreel conceit, or forgiving its unannounced abandonment – but there is a logic to leaving us “inside” the newsreel until the very end. The point of the newsreel, if it existed in real life, would be to give its viewers a small taste of intimacy with royalty. It’s closer to a celebrity magazine than to serious news. But just as there’s continuity between the newsreel and the romantic plot, there’s also a common purpose. Movies too depend on a sense of intimacy.

Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Audrey Hepburn - Gregory Peck - scooter

Between theatrical drama and cinema there’s a fascinating trade-off. A stage play gives its audience one kind of intimacy through the physical presence of the actors. To varying degrees, depending on our proximity to the stage, we can establish a rapport, or at least an imagined rapport, with the live performers through occasional eye contact or the actors’ response to our enthusiasm. Cinema, on the other hand, being a recorded medium, compensates for the lost immediacy of the performance by bringing us closer, using close-ups and psychologically expressive editing. Surely it’s too reductive to say that live theater gives us intimacy with actors while movies give us intimacy with characters, but this description captures some of the difference.

Roman Holiday is above all a story of intimacy. Gregory Peck’s character, news reporter Joe Bradley, exchanges only two kisses and two close hugs with Princess Ann. There is no hope of marriage nor hint of a future reunion at the end. Their relationship, rather, is the fulfilment of the newsreel’s fantasy of intimacy between an ordinary person and a highly placed person. The movie itself does not encourage this fantasy; Joe is not looking for a princess, but the movie uses the gulf between them to make observations about the phenomenon of intimacy.

Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Wall of Wishes - Eddie Albert - Audrey Hepburn - Gregory Peck

As wonderful as their day together in Rome is, with its variety of adventures and sights, it’s important that the intimacy between Joe and Princess Ann is incomplete until the final scene at the embassy when the truth comes out. All along they’ve been lying to each other – she claims she’s run away from school, and he says he sells fertilizer. Even worse, his scheme to make $5000 off the story of their encounter threatens to make a charade of their joint experience. The scene at the “mouth of truth” is funny, but it highlights the fact that both of them are, for the time being, liars. The following scene at the “wall of wishes” foreshadows that things will be set right between them, while reminding us that the hope remains unfulfilled.

Between the fantasy of intimacy dangled by the newsreel, and its uncanny realization in the embassy, the beginning and ending of Roman Holiday form a grand arc (appropriate for a story set in Rome, a city famous for its arches). There’s a lesser arc in Joe’s evolution, a moral lesson secondary to the study of intimacy. When he takes the princess into his apartment he behaves like a gentleman – believing her to be drunk, he declines to take sexual liberties and refuses her the wine she asks for. But his plans to exploit her for profit make his gentlemanly behavior look less genuine, the reflex of a man following an external sense of duty. Only when he renounces his scheme near the end does he become a true gentleman, motivated by conviction. This change too, however, arises from his growing intimacy with Ann.

Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Audrey Hepburn - barber shop - close-up

None of this so far makes Roman Holiday much more than a well made, wonderfully entertaining movie with a dose of common wisdom. It’s justly appreciated for its mix of comedy and romance, its use of Roman locations, and its fine acting including Audrey Hepburn’s Academy Award winning performance. It also suffers a few flaws: the princess’s breakdown before her escape is overly petulant and unconvincing, the brawl on the Tiber is implausible, and the movie strikes a wrong note when Joe attempts to borrow a camera from an unwilling schoolgirl by the Trevi Fountain.

Only in the last minute, after the princess has taken her leave, when Joe Bradley wanders slowly and alone back through the embassy’s grand hall, does Roman Holiday become extraordinary, approaching the pantheon of the finest Hollywood movies. The scene is wordless, but the movie has been constructed so that we should be able to read his exact thoughts. The achievement is all the greater, considering that these silent thoughts are nothing common or simple.

Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Audrey Hepburn - Gregory Peck - Spanish Steps - Trinità dei Monti - ice cream cone

First of all, the tone for his walk through the hall is set by the series of tacit exchanges between himself, Princess Ann, and his photographer friend Irving Radovich at the press interview. A sequence of glances, gestures, and double entendres reveals the whole truth of the past day’s events to all three of them. Now she knows who the men are and what they had planned to do, but she understands that their better nature has prevailed. Between them, and especially between Joe and Ann, there is a deep warmth that transcends reconciliation. The intimacy they had reached for when kissing is now fully realized. Irving recognizes that something has transpired, and when Joe lingers behind the other reporters, Irving respectfully leaves him alone. As Joe finally turns and walks away he knows his time with Ann is over, yet he registers no sign of disappointment. The substance of his thoughts must surely echo the famous words from a movie eleven years earlier. He has to be thinking: “We’ll always have Rome.”

The parallel to Casablanca is drawn thoroughly. Like Rick sending Ilsa off with Victor, Joe can expect no future with the woman he loves. His treasured time with her, an idyllic memory in a great European capital, has until now been threatened by falsity. Rick’s experience of Paris was ruined for a year and a half while he believed Ilsa had been untrue to him, and Joe’s time in Rome would likewise have lost its delight if he had abused her trust and sold his story to Hennessy. Now, however, the enjoyment of that memory belongs to both of them for life. In this one regard, Roman Holiday gives us what Casablanca could not – time constraints forced the Paris scene in Casablanca to remain perfunctory; we must take the movie’s word that the couple’s time there was worth treasuring – whereas Joe and Ann’s happiness in Rome is palpable.

Roman Holiday - William Wyler - Gregory Peck - embassy - ending

At the same time that Joe Bradley begins to savor his eternal memory of Ann, something else must be going through his mind as he looks around the embassy hall, taking in its rococo splendor. Between the formality of the interview ceremony and the overwhelming majesty of the building, no one could fail to notice the vast difference between her world and his. Ever since the princess’s shoe came off, the movie has gone a long way to bring her down to earth, to show that she’s as human as anyone else; but her world is still different, and Joe has known it since he saw her picture in the newspaper. Now, after everything, as the lofty hall confronts him with the princess’s profound otherness, he cannot help but wonder at the paradox that he could be so close to someone and so far removed at the same time. This is the ultimate kernel of insight in Roman Holiday; the love affair between a humble reporter and a princess may sound dramatic, but it reflects something universal – that intimacy between two people does not erase their otherness. Intimacy and otherness always coexist; and, rather than creating a problem, this fact should inspire as much wonder in us as it does for Joe Bradley as he walks through that palatial room, gazing around with an awed half-smile and a lifetime’s store of memories.


City Lights – Real intimacy only possible at the end when the man and woman know the truth about each other

Midnight – Cinderella allusions: lost shoe, princess, fits into clothes, offhand reference to the fairy tale; fairy tale reversed

Citizen Kane – Newsreel; apparent error in logic at beginning (Rosebud / end of newsreel); Joe works for a newspaper like Kane; Ann asks for “a silk nightgown with rosebuds on it”

Ornamental Hairpin – Wordless ending in which it’s possible to read a character’s precise thoughts

Casablanca – “We’ll always have Paris/Rome.”

Mildred Pierce – Opening that echoes Citizen Kane